Jamie Tarses DeathwatchTraffic was heavy in Los Angeles the other morning, as I tried to make my way down Lincoln Boulevard to the office. I was still trying to shake the sleep out of my eyes and preoccupied with thoughts of the day ahead and the calls I'd have to make and the deadlines I'd have to meet and that attractive girl who works in advertising.
Which is when I looked up at the sky and saw a sight, not only jarring enough to yank me out of my reverie, but so horrifying that it would make the faithless man believe and the religious man realize that damnation was soon at hand.
It was the bloated, disembodied head of Dan Aykroyd, floating above the startled motorists.
I believe I handled the situation as best I could, given the fact that not even a half-hour into my busy day, I was being confronted by the larger-than-life visage of an obese Saturday Night Live alumnus.
"Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee!" I screamed, as a I plowed my Plymouth into a lamppost.
Before you dial up the local sanitarium to have them haul me off for a nice long stay, allow me to explain. ABC, a company that has something to do with broadcasting, has chosen to flood the greater L.A. area with a glut of billboards touting its new fall schedule. But instead of billboards displaying warm portraits of ABC's fabulous stars inviting you to spend an evening with them, the ads instead contain only the dismembered heads of ABC's marquee names, pasted onto the piss-yellow background that now dominates the stumbling network's new ad campaign.
So pedestrians, motorists and otherwise innocent passersby are treated to the decidedly off-putting sight of the skulls of Michael J. Fox and Drew Carey keeping a watchful eye over the city of Angels. They must avert their eye as the dismembered heads of Kevin Nealon and Richard Lewis whiz by, plastered onto the sides of buses. They must wonder what sort of mad genius would unveil to the world a billboard with the discorporate beans of Thomas Gibson and Jenna Elfman attached at the ear--truly, a double-headed hydra of banality. And they must beg God for deliverance from the apocalyptic vision of the aforementioned Aykroyd's swelling cranium.
It took a while for the sense to return to my brain, for the dull throb of reality to set back in. How many others, I wondered, had seen the giant heads of ABC stars peering down at them and reacted how I reacted? How many others have stumbled upon ABC's ill-advised "TV is good" campaign and fought for hours to suppress their natural urges to kill? Is this any way to run a TV network?
"The Jamie Tarses deathwatch," I muttered, "has begun."
ABC does not have a long and proud history as a network. Founded decades after NBC and CBS had gotten their start entertaining America, the network was always the buck-toothed cousin of its broadcasting brethren, giving life to such piffle as The Flying Nun, The Brady Bunch, Donnie & Marie and The Lawrence Welk Show. Even when ABC rose to TV's relative level of respectability, it was on the wings of tripe like Fantasy Island and Charlie's Angels. CBS has always had the prestige. NBC has always had the Emmys. ABC has Fred "Gopher" Grandy.
That was supposed to change when Disney was handed the keys to the store. An evil programming empire unlike any ever seen before, the Walt Disney Company was supposed to use the same marketing savvy it had employed in making us a nation that's willing to spend $35 a throw to watch audioanimatronic pirates to turn ABC into a cash cow. And the woman who was supposed to lead the network to the promised land was Jamie Tarses, the first woman to become programming chief for a network.
Tarses, of course, was the wunderkind at NBC, the executive who shepherded the development of Mad About You and Friends, turning those dubious premises into ratings bonanzas. She had impressive TV bloodlines, the daughter of highly regarded producer Jay Tarses, whose successes included Buffalo Bill and Slap Maxwell and several other shows that in no way featured Dabney Coleman.
So it was little wonder that ABC would take a look at Tarses, see what this seemingly talented woman had done and covet her for their very own. The folks at Disney became so consumed by lust for Tarses that top executive/creepy guy Michael Ovitz began spreading rumors that NBC entertainment president Don Ohlmeyer had made clumsy passes at Tarses, apparently in the hopes that a clunky rumor would force the Peacock Network to let Tarses out of her contract.
(Ohlmeyer and Tarses denounced the rumors. Ohlmeyer called Ovitz "the anti-christ." Ovitz is no longer a top Disney executive. He is still a creepy guy.)
So great was the fanfare surrounding Tarses' arrival at ABC that she almost seemed doomed from the start. Her arrival muscled the likable but inept Ted Harbert out of the way, making her appear like a pushy ghoul. The '96 fall schedule assembled by her predecessors--full of high-profile shows like Murder One and Spin City -- tanked, leaving the network without any new hits. She programmed a U2 special for Saturday night at 10 p.m.--a time when most U2 fans aren't even within shouting distance of a TV--and it promptly became the lowest-rated hour of television ever. More people watch the morning farm report, for crissakes.
In short, Tarses' reign at ABC has been eight kinds of awful. And this fall promised to be no different. The schedule is jammed full of inane sitcoms--each one virtually indistinguishable from the other--tired dramas, returning shows wobbling on their final legs and a Saturday night of programming that reads like an afterthought.
I can't really blame Tarses for any of this. She's only able to work with the tools that she's given, and when those tools include James Belushi, Tim Curry and a long-haired hippie priest, then it's a fairly safe bet the final product is going to blow. And while my teeth are on edge at the thought of another sitcom where the characters just sit around talking about their sex lives, hey, that's what brought Jamie so much success with Friends. Can you really fault her for dancing with the gal that brung her?
But then came the ads, oh God, the ads. You may have seen them... the insipid copy, the trite "hipper-than-thou" philosophy, the jarring shade of yellow that Tarses had the temerity to call warm and inviting when ABC unleashed its fall campaign on an unsuspecting populace. "It will set us apart in the minds of our viewers," Tarses and her cohorts crowed about their bold choice of yellow. But the only thing it calls to my mind is jaundice.
The ads, you may recall, strive to be ironic by touting the pleasures of watching TV in general and ABC in particular. "Hobbies, schmobbies," the ads say. "It's a beautiful day... What are you doing outside?" Or in one of the more insulting lines that thankfully failed to make the final cut, "Reading is overrated."
From what I can tell, ABC was trying to wink at its viewers, establishing itself as the hip network with the kind of attitude perfectly in line with today's cynical, post-modern sensibilities. But it did so at the expense of promoting its own shows.
This fall, ABC is debuting more shows than any other network, including those chowderheads at UPN and The WB. Yet, up until a week before the shows premiered, I couldn't have told you a thing about them. I may have no interest in watching Veronica's Closet or Union Square on NBC--and believe you me, I don't--but at least I understand when the shows will actually where and what they will be about. TV may be good, as ABC claims in its ads, but if you have nothing worth watching, then why bother?
ABC executives have tried to spin the disastrous fallout from the ad campaign by explaining that any word-of-mouth--good or bad--brings the network much needed publicity. "At least, people are talking about us," they've said.
Yes, well, people talked about the Hindenburg, too, but you don't see anyone booking passage aboard a zeppelin nowadays, do you?
The all important TV ratings seem to be bearing this theory out. The second airings of Nothing Sacred and the enjoyable Cracker were crushed by NBC's Thursday night lineup. Only pets and houseplants watched last week's premiere of Timecop. A third of the audience watching the highly rated Home Improvement turned off the TV rather than subject themselves to the untold horrors of Hiller & Diller.
I can't say I blame them. I tuned in for the opening of Hiller & Diller and was treated to this delightful ditty, apparently masquerading as the show's theme song.
This is Ken Hiller
So true. So I shut off the TV and began reading.
It's not failure I despise, it's mediocrity. And that has become ABC's stock and trade since Jamie Tarses took over the programming reigns. With each low-rated show, each lame-ass ad campaign, each dim-witted programming decision, another second ticks away on the Jamie Tarses deathwatch clock. Shorter of breath, as Pink Floyd once crooned, and one day closer to death.
And nothing, not even the disembodied head of Dan Aykroyd, will save her job...
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